How dried fish and trinkets can rehabilitate rescued Indian labourers

KANCHEEPURAM: Vasanta's small blue kiosk packed with neat rows of biscuits, dried fish, imitation jewellery and Crazy Crunch crisps on the edge of a village in Tamil Nadu may appear modest.

But it means everything to Vasanta, who spent most of her adult life trapped in a rice mill, working 14 hours a day and even giving birth there to pay off an advance from a job she and her husband were promised.

"I run this shop, it is mine," said Vasanta, one of a group of rescued workers taking part in a pilot scheme to help them build their own businesses and keep their new-found freedom.

Vasanta entered the mill at the age of 15 or 16, spending more than 20 years there before she was rescued.

"We were very young and didn't know better. We trusted the agent who offered us the job," Vasanta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, asking to be identified only by her last name.

"When I was rescued and stepped out of that mill, I was scared of the future."

Debt bondage is the most prevalent form of forced labour in India, where an estimated 18 million people live in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest Global Slavery Index by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

Most bonded labourers are from the marginalised Dalit and tribal communities, often duped into offering themselves for work as security against a family loan or debt.

But they are rarely told how repayments are calculated and the loan can be extended or paid off without their knowledge. So they can spend months, if not years, working to pay it back.

In the past 38 years, more than 280,000 bonded labourers in 18 of India's 29 states have been freed, official figures show.

Campaigners said falling back into bondage is the greatest challenge faced by those who have been rescued, who find their financial circumstances remain unchanged despite their freedom.

Pilot scheme

Vasanta's fears of losing her freedom again have faded due to a pilot project to provide a way for rescued bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram district to make a living.

The project began in June 2016 with six families, a collaboration between the Tamil Nadu government and non-profit group International Justice Mission (IJM).

Each family was given a subsidised loan to start a business.

The Palani family lived in the confines of a rice mill for 25 years until they were rescued in 2013.

Now they run a food cart, selling fish curry, rice and other snacks near the bus stand in Tirukalukundram town, a few kilometres from their home village.

Another participating family, the Gopis, invested in the charcoal business, supplying restaurants in Chennai city.

IJM said the aim was to give former bonded labourers a way of earning money that was sustainable and allowing them to be truly independent.

"We were not looking to provide survivors like the Palanis grants," said Sam Jebadurai of IJM.

"Instead we asked survivors what they would like to do and how much loan they would like to get their project started. Each one had their own plan and also drew up their own installment schedule. To date no one has defaulted on payment."

However, selling and marketing produce has been a big challenge for all of the families involved. All are from the Irula tribes of Tamil Nadu and have had to fight prejudice and resistance from other small businessmen to set up shop.

Many meetings were held to bolster the confidence of the survivors, Jebadurai said.

But six months into the project, the profits have started coming in and the livelihood project is set to expand to neighbouring villages, offering loans to other rescued workers.

Vasanta said her packets of crisps and biscuits which cost two rupees, or about three US cents, sell the most.

Twice a week, she walks three km (1.9 miles) to the nearest town to stock up on goods and returns in an auto rickshaw.

"I can pay for it," she said with pride.

Vasanta took a loan of 56,000 rupees ($825) and has been paying it off in 3,760 rupee ($55) monthly installments. She still saves enough to run her home and sometimes can even deposit some money in a recently opened bank account.

"The success of these projects gives the government models to replicate," said Umi Daniel, a migrant rights activist with Aide et Action in eastern Odisha, a main source state for migrant labourers caught in debt bondage.

"There is a lot of backroom innovation happening to come up with models that prevent rebondage. Sustained livelihood is a challenge that has to be met."

($1=67.9256 Indian rupees)